“God Exists” and “The Bible Is True”

Following is a synopsis of some responses to a viewer mail we received from “Aaron.” I gave up hope that Aaron would be able to go very deeply into a dialog about his own beliefs, but felt it was worth recording for the edification of blog readers.

Hello Aaron:

This may be my last reply, because you demonstrate a level of understanding of the history and reality of your own religion and holy book that really requires a “Bible and Christian History 101” course, not a few letters from an association volunteer. And even though I am involved in Austin with an Educational Foundation, I’m not here to spoon-feed you a semester’s worth of information you could easily find online if you honestly even wanted to know how your Bible came to exist. I suggest you start here and follow the links to educate yourself on at least the basic facts about your own holy book:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_Canon

There have been many versions of it—including many “final” versions of it. And today there are in fact at least three “orthodox” Bible versions that are accepted in mainstream Christianity; and these are not all based upon the same set of base manuscripts for their content. When you say “The Bible,” then, you are using a word that refers to at least three different widely used anthologies of early Christian writings that are all considered “THE” holy Bible by different, large groups of people who all call themselves “Christians.”

>The Bible was written by Moses – who yes, was a shepherd

There is no compelling evidence that Moses even existed, let alone that he wrote any part of the Bible. We have wildly exaggerated tales about him, mostly in Jewish mythology, but nothing to confirm this was ever a real man, any more than a figure like Paul Bunyon.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses#Historicity

The idea Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament is a Jewish myth. Christian Bible scholars know this. May I ask where you obtained this information and who told you this was true? Further, can I ask you why you believed it without researching it yourself? Many Bibles today come with Translator’s notes which would tell you—right there inside your Bible—that we don’t have the identity of the author of the Pentateuch—the first five books that Moses is said to have authored.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentateuch
“Modern biblical scholars see no signs of Mosaic authorship, but indications of much later writing”

>but also by a doctor/historian (luke)

Again, this is not a valid claim. It is not known who authored the gospel of Luke. It’s just an old church traditional tale:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Luke#Authorship

> and a guy who was a master of Jewish law (Paul).

Again, some books are attributed to Paul. But authorship assignment still requires speculation. There is no “fact” of who wrote the books within the Bible. But it is an undisputed reality that whatever is in there now is a revision of whatever was originally composed (which we no longer have).

Whoever is feeding you your information is unreliable and/or lying to you. Go to a Bible shop and open up the first page of each book in a NIV. You will see a page that tells you who the authors are *suspected* to be (if there is even a suspected author) and whether those assignments are based on scholarly guesses or just old religious traditions. What you will not find is anything conclusive to identify authorship to any high degree of certainty. And what you will not find is any credible Bible scholar who has studied these texts—believer in god or not—claiming they know who the authors actually are.

>Why would guys like Peter put embarrassing things about themselves in book where they’re just trying to gain followers (Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” peter deneies Christ). If you’re tyring to lie to build a following, you don’t do that.

Can you demonstrate Peter authored any book of the Bible and explain how you can be sure he did?

More importantly, when did I claim to know what anyone’s motives were for authoring 2,000-year-old letters? I have no idea what motives some anonymous author had 2,000 years ago for writing a letter—and I am sure you don’t, either. More importantly though, whatever was originally written is now gone. What we have now are altered texts that are no longer representative of the original writings.

I don’t know if you’re inclined to read more. I had been giving you very brief replies. My thinking was that if you couldn’t even recognize your own reasoning was absurd (in my examples of how you reasoned about Gremlins vs. god), I wasn’t sure a lengthy and densely informational response would be of any use to you (and would just waste my time). That said, I did put together a response to you, but mainly to post to our blog for the benefit of others who might actually be inclined to learn from it. However, if my assessment of you is incorrect, and you can follow the information below, here it is for your edification, broken down into three (hopefully easy-to-digest) parts.

1. Your support for your belief using “you can’t prove it’s not true” is irrational. And here is why:
You asserted god exists and the Bible is true; and you challenged someone who does not believe god exists and the Bible is true by asking if the claims “god exists” and “the Bible is true” could be disproved. However, you admitted you could not disprove gremlins exist; and when you admitted that, you acknowledged only that “maybe” they exist, but you “don’t know” (meaning you aren’t committed to saying if they do or do not exist).

But as someone who did not believe gremlins exist, who admitted he could not prove they do not exist, if your argument (i.e., I believe god exists because that claim cannot be disproved) is convincing, why do you not now believe gremlins do exist? Until you say it is true that gremlins exist, you are not a person who believes gremlins exist. That is you are still a nonbeliever in the existence of gremlins. Your position is merely it is possible they could exist, not that you believe they, in fact, do.

If you do not find an inability to prove gremlins do not exist to be a convincing argument for their existence, why did you use that same line of argumentation with me for your god, repeatedly? If even you demonstrate you don’t accept it as compelling–what on Earth made you think anyone else would find it compelling?

2. “The Bible is true” does not make sense based on my understanding of the word “true.”
“True” as I understand it, generally means “correlating to demonstrable reality.” So, when you say “the Bible is true,” I assume you mean that if we examine all of the best evidence for things claimed in the Bible, it will show a consistent positive correlation to what the Bible claims about reality. Since this is not the case, I don’t know how you’re using “true.” Here are two examples of what I mean, one addressing extra-Biblical reality, and one addressing internal Biblical reality.

Example 1: Extra-Biblical example:
You asserted not that evolution is false, but that you believe god was the catalyst for evolution. If you aren’t disputing evolution, then we can say that, in fact, we agree the Bible is not true in the case of Genesis and the account of how humans came to exist on Earth. According to the Bible, man popped fully formed and already communicating using language. And ultimately this same first human was wearing clothing and using agriculture–straight from his magical beginnings from dirt.

If we look at what evolutionary biologists put forward as the model of human evolution, then the Bible is not “true.” There is fossil evidence, DNA, and beyond b
iological evolution, a demonstrable history of how and when human agriculture is first evidenced compared to how long humans had existed previously in nomadic or hunter-gatherer cultures. Additionally we can tell from excavations approximately when people began to fashion tools (and by proxy when the idea of “manufacturing” things, such as clothing, may have been introduced), and there is simply no evidence to support that the earliest humans would have been “truthfully” represented by the Genesis account. All of the evidence appears, in fact, not to correlate to that account as “true.”

Example 2: Internal Biblical Example:
The New Testament passage (Gospel of) John 7:53-8:11 is as good an example as any. As an atheist, I have no objection to agreeing that the men and women who are hired to translate the best modern translations of the Bible are qualified people for the job. They are expert at reading and interpreting ancient languages that the average person wouldn’t begin to have a clue about. Additionally, they are devoted specifically to the texts used within the Bible. These are men and women who have devoted significant portions of their lives and careers to the Biblical manuscripts specifically. And I accept them as “expert” when it comes to claims about those manuscripts.

In the NASB and NIV versions of the Bible (both reputable translations), if any person takes an interest in doing so, they have a wealth of input from these experts, literally, at their fingertips. There are marginal notes, footnotes, endnotes, etc., right on the pages where the text appears. Anyone can see what the translators have to say about the texts Christians are reading in their Bibles. And I can’t imagine anyone claiming the people inserting these notes are not qualified to giving the best opinions of what the best and most current data demonstrates about what is “true” about these texts.

Throughout the pages, there are many insertions of notes that alert the reader that the text is in question or is disputed. It will alert you that this or that verse here says X, but in some other available manuscripts it does not say X (or says Y instead).

I chose John 7:53-8:11, because it is probably one of the most famous stories in the Bible about Jesus. It is the story of the adulterous woman–who is brought before Jesus for judgment. He there puts forward the famous line “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This has become a very popular story with Christians.

Yet, according to the translators’ notes, it isn’t included in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. They say outright and boldly, right on the pages of the NASB, that the story was added to the text later. These are translators who have a vested interest in the production and sale of Bibles being a successful industry. They have no cause to undermine their source of income by claiming “it’s a fake!” And yet, that’s what they’re saying if you are someone who accepts this book as “true.” If any group had a reason to lie or be biased about the Bible including reliable content, it would be people who work in the Bible-selling industry, selling to people who, like you, want very badly to believe it is “true”–and yet they’re telling you (and me) it’s not.

So, the best and most reliable evidence, considered by the best experts in the field, with no reason for bias against the text, does not align with your claim “the Bible is true.” And you can see this yourself–as any Christian who is interested can also–just by opening a good Bible translation that includes translator notes.

So, I have no idea what you mean when you say “the Bible is true.” I see no evidence that it should not be considered to include lies, errors, falsehoods–whatever you want to call them—basically statements that do not correlate with the best evidence we have to judge against in reality.

3. Your claim “god exists” is so far a meaningless statement, to which I cannot respond—since it makes no sense as you have stated it.
So far you haven’t really explained what this claim means. I don’t know what you’re calling god, so I have no idea what to say about whether it exists or not. But for example, I accept the existence of many things—books, water, chairs, even oxygen (which can be demonstrated using balloons and fire, and many other methods). To me, “exist” is a word we use to assert that a particular item manifests in some way in demonstrable, material reality.

This is why it’s interesting that you said only that “gremlins may exist” after admitting you could not disprove them. If I were to go into a classroom of 10-year-olds and ask them if gremlins exist, they would inform me gremlins are fairytale, mythical creatures that do not, in fact, exist. Their assessment has nothing to do with gremlins having been disproved. It would be a statement of the extreme lack of evidence for the existence of gremlins. In other words, the people who assert gremlins cause machines to malfunction, have never been able to produce a demonstration of what they’re talking about. This leads the reasonable 10-year-old to assert that gremlins do not exist. That is, their manifestation within reality so far cannot be discerned from nothing.

So, we have two bins. One labeled “nonexistent” and one labeled “existence.” Everything starts off in the “nonexistent” bin. And once it unambiguously manifests in reality in some way—either on its own, like the sun, or by some demonstration, like oxygen–it goes into the bin of “existence.” What we don’t do is put items into the “existence” bin BEFORE they are demonstrated to exist or before they manifest self-evidently in some measurable fashion.

Interestingly, a 10-year-old gets this, but you are so unwilling to admit your argument “you can’t prove it doesn’t exist, ergo it’s reasonable to accept that it does” is a fail, that you have demonstrated you will even dishonestly assert you can’t really say gremlins don’t exist—even though you and I both know that if you were honest, you’d admit you don’t give a second thought to asserting gremlins are myths. A 10-year-old is not only more reasonable than you, then, but also more honest.

My question to you is whether this thing—whatever it is you’re calling god—”exists,” in that it demonstrates a manifestation in reality that we can discuss. Or whether it is indiscernible from nothing? And if it’s no different than nothing, I can’t agree that “nothing exists.” And I can’t really examine what we’re supposed to be talking about in such a case—and I can’t see how you could, either? I have no data points to confirm to even begin a dialog with you about it. When you have some manifestation or demonstration, come back and we’ll have “something” to talk about (rather than “nothing”).

Thanks for writing.

-th

###

I’m sorry to say that after this exchange Aaron replied that he’d rather believe in god and be wrong, than not believe. That’s right, he threw Pascal’s Wager at me, after all this trouble I went to jotting down these notes. But knowing it would go to use at the blog allowed me to avoid feelings of futility and disappointment.

When I replied that Pascal’s Wager is a fail, but that he’d have to research it to find out why, he sent back a fairly large cut-and paste-apologist’s Web site content that asserted Pascal’s Wager was a fail because god demands devotion and real belief, not just someone playing a part.

I congratulated him on finding one reason Pascal’s Wager fails, and gave him a few others as a bonus point for having looked it up at all. Then alerted him that copying and pasting without giving credit to a source is plagiarism, because it’s like trying to claim someone else’s ideas as your own. He had asked me if maybe
Matt would write back to him. I told him Matt is copied on all the tv e-list correspondences, but that his probability of a reply from Matt was quite low for two reasons:

1. He’d already said he’d rather believe and be wrong. If someone asserts they don’t care if they believe falsehoods, what is the point of anyone arguing with them about the their beliefs? I can’t imagine a greater waste of time to enter into.

2. The last copy-and-paste note (paragraphs and paragraphs of material) was indicative of a problem we often see with some mail correspondence. We ask people to contact us to discuss what they believe and why they believe it. Sending us reams and reams of what someone else believes for us to rebut is senseless. If they can’t explain what they believe and support what they believe, providing their own reasons, then maybe they’re not ready to assert it as their belief? If the person who wrote the content Aaron had stripped and sent to us wanted to challenge us about his beliefs, he’s welcome to do so. But nobody on our list is interested in arguing with random apologists’ web content through Aaron’s endless relays. What an easy conversation that would be from Aarson’s perspective? He wouldn’t have to think or type or explain anything—just copy and paste while we spend time crafting thoughtful responses using our actual reasoning.

To summarize: Nobody on our list is interested in a one-sided waste of our time.

What Does Appeal to Pascal’s Wager Really Say?

Is This about Me or You?

Imagine this conversation:

Woman 1: So, anyway, at the end of the argument I just told my husband I thought he was wrong.

Woman 2: I can’t believe you said that. Aren’t you afraid he’ll hit you?

When I put myself in Woman 1’s place, I have two immediate thoughts:

1. Not in a million years would I be afraid my husband would strike me for any reason short of his own self-defense if I went violently insane.

2. How long was Woman 2 abused? Is she still being abused?

I wouldn’t expect Woman 2’s comment from a woman who has no history of abuse whatsoever. I suppose I could imagine a situation where someone was under a mistaken impression I was being abused, and was concerned for my safety? But as a general rule, that question would not be raised in seriousness by a woman who is not or has not been in a situation where she’s been battered.

The question, while aimed at Woman 1, actually speaks volumes about Woman 2, and tells us nothing at all about Woman 1.

Language, questions and comments aimed at others actually carry within them information about those who are speaking. Even the most innocent language does this. If I see a friend making a Lasagna, and I see her using cottage cheese, and I ask “Oh, you don’t use Ricotta?” I’ve just said, “I don’t use cottage cheese when I make Lasagna, I use Ricotta.” We spend our conversational time telling people all about ourselves, often without even realizing we’re doing it.

What Pascal’s Wager Tells Me about You

When we think of Pascal’s Wager, we generally think in brief of someone asking “What if you’re wrong?” The stakes generally are “something bad” if you’re wrong (that you’re risking), and either gaining reward or simply avoiding the “bad” if you’re right.

The Wager itself has a host of problems. But that’s not what I’m concerned with here. What concerns me here is what the Wager tells me about the person who puts it forward. When people ask, “What if you’re wrong?,” what are they telling me about themselves? What I hear when they ask this, is purely heartbreaking. And a letter writer recently put it in a way that evoked honest pity from me. Clearly directed to Matt, he asked:

I have watched many of your you tube videos, and from what I gather, you are a very intelligent man and you seem well educated.

But I wanted to ask you a question, just a simple question, perhaps a question that I myself toil with from time to time.

Q: “when the day is done, and you are sitting alone, or lying in bed, do you ever question your decision to be an atheist, are you ever scared at times, do you ever think that you might be wrong or fear what may or may not happen to you when you die”

Now, this question has no real direction, I just wanted to know if you were like so many others including myself, who at the end of the day either have a longing for an answer or experience doubts or concerns about the decision(s) you’ve made.

While he states the question has “no real direction,” it does, like all communication, carry a message — and more of a message than what is merely being asked. It carries that message about the speaker, which I’m describing.

Matt submitted back a very thorough and well-thought-out reply. However, I kept thinking of this letter after I’d deleted it, and this morning I sent by a separate reply myself to the writer:

I know this was directed at Matt, and he answered it quite thoroughly. But I would like to add something. There are a number of people who have reported being horribly tortured at the hands of malevolent alien abductors. I don’t believe these people’s stories are true. They could easily ask me the same question:

Don’t you ever worry about being abducted yourself? What if you’re wrong?

Certainly if I’m wrong, I could also be abducted and tortured, but I can promise you I don’t lose an ounce of sleep on it. I don’t expend a moment’s concern over being a victim of such an event. And I’m going out on a limb to wager that (1) you’ve heard these stories I’m describing and (2) you don’t worry about being abducted by malevolent aliens any more than I do.

If I’m correct, then you have just experienced what I experience with regard to fear of being wrong about god. It’s the indoctrinated believer who fears and who thinks that fear must plague others who weren’t indoctrinated with that same fear. Just as it’s the “alien abductee” who can’t understand why I don’t seem concerned about what these aliens are doing — not others who don’t believe in alien abduction; it’s the person either still in, or still suffering from the side effects of, indoctrination who can’t fathom life without that fear, which was most often burned into their heads as defenseless children. It’s put there as a mechanism to stop people questioning: “Even if you stop believing…you’ll be plagued by fear and doubt the rest of your life…WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?!” But the truth is, as Matt pointed out, and as I provided an example, if you don’t believe, then you don’t believe in the consequence either. And it’s just very hard to fear that which you do not believe exists.

This is why I consider religious indoctrination of children to be abusive. It scars people and they carry that fear of questioning well into adulthood far too often. Nobody should be made to fear asking questions, doubting, or not believing. Free and independent inquiry should be the basis for any sound ideology. Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry — such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of “true” ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?

And I suppose that’s all I had to say about it?

Something to read with your Monday morning coffee

Everyone loves a good beatdown of those two adorable sad-sack clowns, Ray Cameron and Kirk Comfort. (Or is that the other way around? Oh, who cares!) And here, a fine young atheist writer named Nathan Dickey provides one for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.


Talking to Nathan on Facebook this morning, he brought up that he was inspired to take the opposite approach suggested by this post of mine from a year ago, in which I tried to encourage atheists simply to ignore Ray. My opinion then, which I still hold, is that the vast majority of what Ray says and does is every bit as much about self-promotion and aggrandizement as it is about evangelizing.

It’s nothing but a publicity stunt when Ray and Kirk do things like publish their own version of Origin of Species, or “challenge” people like Richard Dawkins to a debate (simply so they can crow he must have chickened out when he refuses). And Ray’s legendary dishonesty is so shameless in all of his dealings with atheists that for atheists to continue to seek engagements with him can only be seen as an act of futility. This is quite simply a man who cannot be trusted to show any degree of integrity whatsoever. He is a pathological liar, straight up, as we saw most recently in an exchange where Ray informed an atheist commenter to his blog that he would be delighted to phone in to AETV if we extended an invitation to him, as he did not want to invite himself. I immediately went to Ray’s blog and posted an invitation. Ray replied by posting a link to his “interview request” form, which would seem bizarre, considering that I wasn’t requesting an interview with him, only extending the invitation to call us that he had asked for. I say it would seem bizarre, until you realize that Ray is dishonest in every imaginable way. Then you realize this behavior is par for the course for him.

Weeks later, we were told by a reader that Ray was once again repeating the whole “Sure I’d love to call them, but they haven’t invited me!” thing, which makes him nothing less than a blatant, bald-faced lying sack of shit. So in this regard, yes, I still say, atheists should ignore Ray, because he has demonstrated through his every behavior that honesty at even the most basic level is just not part of his playbook.

But then, to do as Nathan has done, and critique the content of Ray and Kirk’s evangelism — well, that remains an entirely legitimate exercise in counter-apologetics. And a fun one too, as Ray and Kirk are without question the most laughable excuses for apologists alive — and when you consider the generally low intellectual level the bulk of religious apologetics is working in, that’s really saying something. So keep tearing apart their silly books and websites and TV programs. As Nathan notes, beating down Ray and Kirk’s drivel can be thought of as the training wheels for newbie atheists just learning to ride the counter-apologetics bike. It’s good sport, and good practice.

A Skeptic’s Wager?

I got this on my Facebook newsfeed, and wanted to share. It’s like a skeptic’s Pascal’s Wager, but works much better. The question came up as to whether it can be labeled with a catchy title like “Pascal’s Wager”? Any ideas?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but…will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” —Marcus Aurelius

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won’t examine that particular episode, but I’d like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal “experts.”

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren’t “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says
“get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I u
nderstand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I’m attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I’ll find what I’m looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.

Pascal’s Wager dies and is dead like a dead thing

Thanks to viewer Quinn Martindale for posting this quick snippet from a show this March in which Matt Dillahunty, in two minutes, says everything that needs to be said to destroy the most tired and banal argument for belief still making the rounds. You’d think most believers would have gotten the message that Pascal’s Wager is the sort of thing you only bring up if you’re walking around with the word DOOFUS tattooed to your forehead in a lovely decorative serif font. But you’d be surprised how many believers still take it seriously. After this, hopefully they’ll be properly schooled.